One of the first things you learn in school is to color within the lines when making a picture. One of the first things a journalist learns about pictures (and graphics) is that they can be extremely useful—and a little misleading, as stories in Tuesday’s New York Sun and Daily News illustrated.
The pieces in question concerned a report by the advocacy group Common Good about the suffocating abundance of rules and regulations governing New York City schools.
While the report, and the stories, covered a range of complicated procedures at schools (replacing a heating system, bouncing a bad teacher, holding an athletic event), the most striking parts of the stories were graphics showing the labyrinthine process of expelling a student.
The Sun copied the massive graphic, which covered two-thirds of two separate pages, including the front page, right from the Common Good report. The Daily News offered a truncated version on page 36. (The New York Post also devoted a small, page 4 item to the report, with no graphic.)
The problem is the graphic is misleading. For example, it implies that the different conditions for suspending a student (carrying a weapon, selling drugs, hurting someone) were somehow separate steps in the suspension process. The chart also treats as separate steps the different passages in notification letters to parents.
The News boils down the chart to 16 steps, but some of those are also not really separate acts: For example, No. 13 is the waiting period for the decision from a suspension hearing.
This is not to say that the suspension process is simple, sensible, or above criticism. But these graphics paint a picture that is more than the sum of its parts. For example, one of the bubbles in the Common Good graphic is “inform the student of the charges, explain the evidence against him/her, and give him/her an opportunity to present his/her side of the events.” Could we really do without that step? Is the one about victim impact statements so onerous? Would we prefer to have non-English-speaking parents attend hearings without a translator?
Graphics can simplify. They can also oversimplify. To know the difference, the key step for readers is to eye the fine print.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 1, 2004